Illuminating story set in a changing world

LAMPLIGHTER<br><b>Kerry Donovan</b><br><i>Brown Victoria University Press</i>
LAMPLIGHTER<br><b>Kerry Donovan</b><br><i>Brown Victoria University Press</i>
Reading Lamplighter is like coming across a small but exquisite stained-glass window in a darkened hallway; a burst of unexpected light and colour through which to catch a glimpse of a familiar but subtly transformed world.

The story is set in the small New Zealand settlement of Portbeagle at some unspecified date not too distant from our own and one step to the side, where old traditions live alongside the trappings of modernity. It's a place where town meetings incorporate life-drawing of the village head into the regular order of business and the Lamplighter goes out every night to kindle the flames that keep the malevolent spirits of the surrounding marsh at bay.

Candle's Grandfather Ignis is the current Lamplighter, and as his apprentice the boy has grown up with the stories of the doggod, Wet Pete and the other monsters that lurk in the darkness waiting for the unsuspecting and unwary to stray beyond the safety of the light. But times are changing and it has been decided it is time for the Lamplighter to finally retire, his ephemeral fires to be replaced with the cold reliability of electricity.

For Candle this means freedom, but also the realisation that now he serves no purpose to his Grandfather, for the old man will never accept him for who he really is. And although the old stories may not survive the glare of technology, the truth that is revealed might well be worse.

In a publishing market where verbal excess appears obligatory, another thing that stands out is how carefully each word seems to have been chosen, and how tactile and haunting the imagery. Take, for example, the following description: ''The skin of the surface sucked Pete in deeper, like the gentle, contracting muscles of a mouth. It crept up his stomach, chest, over his shoulders, neck, and then enveloped him completely.'' I challenge anybody to read this without feeling the water touching their own skin.

The novel is as beautifully produced as it is written, from the feel of its pages to the choice of font, and I quite literally couldn't put it down. The author, Kerry Donovan Brown, won the 2012 Adam Prize and I think he will be giving Eleanor Catton a run for her money in the very near future. This is certainly the best book I have read in years.

- Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.

Win a copy
The ODT has five copies of Lamplighter, by Kerry Donovan Brown, (RRP $28), to give away courtesy of Victoria University Press.

For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ''Lamplighter Book Competition'' in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, April 8.


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